On the same page

September 27, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

As assistant librarian at Coyle Free Library, Rhoda Carnes sees young people enter, attempt to use a computer and then twiddle their thumbs for 20 minutes until a monitor is free.

She recommends they can read at the Chambersburg, Pa., library while they wait, but seldom do they listen.

She wishes they would.

"I have children who come into the youth room and all they want to do is play games on the computer and use the Internet, and they don't read. They read directions on the screen but that's it," Carnes says. "With me, of course, I've been a reader all my life, so 20 minutes is wonderful. I would take advantage of any time to read, but some kids don't."

Local literacy proponents would like to teach the world to read in perfect harmony, but they'll settle for members of their own communities.


Mirroring similar programs springing up from Oregon to Chicago to Baltimore, Chambersburg Reads ... and a like-minded initiative in Washington County aim to introduce a large number of people to one book in the hope of nurturing a love of reading and community.

"We want to show people reading is fun," says Kathleen O'Connell, associate director of Washington County Free Library. "It doesn't have to be some weighty tome."

Sure enough, the programs Chambersburg and Washington County are patterned after have highlighted titles ranging from Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" to "A Painted House" by John Grisham.

Cumberland and Dauphin counties in Pennsylvania have even teamed up to read the Civil War novel "The Killer Angels" under a One Book, Two Counties regional reading campaign.

Since July, Chambersburg area agencies and organizations have been focusing their attention on "Bull Run." Written by Paul Fleischman, the 1993 Civil War story addresses the battle of Bull Run from 16 points of view.

A series of events through November, including staged readings of book excerpts by the Conococheague Players, have highlighted Civil War history while providing an opportunity for readers of different backgrounds to come together via the same book.

"We don't always take the time to appreciate or delve into the characters of a book. This gives us a common ground to get to know characters in depth," says Cindy Keller, library supervisor for Chambersburg Area School District. "If we get people to read one book, to some that's quite an accomplishment."

Though undecided on a book, O'Connell says the hope is to start the Washington County program in November. The trick is to select a title accessible to a large audience, interesting to many readers without excluding those with a limited reading level.

But since the program focuses on one book, she says local organizers have been leaning toward a title with a film version so that even if someone isn't able to read the book, they won't be excluded from the subsequent discourse.

Given the local illiteracy rate of between 15 percent and 17 percent, this reading program can serve as a catalyst to introduce more people to the joys of reading.

It may also bridge the gap between generations, if children and parents reading the same book can then sit down and discuss their thoughts about characters, setting and plot development.

"It really builds community," O'Connell says. "You can be doing anything and say, 'How did you like this book?' It can start conversations with people you wouldn't normally talk to."

Organizers in Maryland and Pennsylvania are eager to create franchises from this idea, introducing new selections every few months and, hopefully, reacquainting patrons with the simple pleasure of curling up with a good book, a sensation Keller says can not be replaced by a computer screen.

Carnes remembers a few months ago, there was a bit of skepticism about how many copies of "Bull Run" should be ordered for sale at Coyle Free Library. Eventually, 100 were displayed, and sold, a gratifying turn of events for organizers.

Books have disappeared from libraries, used bookstores in downtown Chambersburg, from chain stores. Carnes has also heard some people lamenting that they can't find copies of the book.

"I can't pinpoint why I thought it would be good in the beginning," she says. "I just thought that if other communities did it and it survived and moved eastward there must be some good in it."

For information about Chambersburg Reads, call 1-717-264-6883. For details about the upcoming Washington County program, call 301-739-3250, ext. 166.

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